Mars’ 2020 Rover, Goals and Instruments Announced by NASA

The Mars 2020 Rover, artists drawing of where each of the seven instruments will be located.  Image Credit: NASA

The Mars 2020 Rover, artists drawing of where each of the seven instruments will be located.
Image Credit: NASA

A panel of scientists assembled today at NASA headquarters to announce, via NASA Television, the seven carefully selected instruments that are to be included on the 2020 Rover to Mars. The panel included:

  • John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for the NASA Science Mission Directorate
  • Bill Gerstenmaier, associate administrator for the NASA Human Exploration and Operations Directorate
  • Michael Meyer, lead scientist, Mars Exploration Program
  • Ellen Stofan, NASA chief scientist

There are four main goals for the next Martian endeavor. The devices, which will accompany the rover, have been specifically selected to aid in reaching the mission objectives. These include: making the necessary progress to eventually bring humans to the red planet, identifying and studying a specific region of the planet in detail, to look for biosignatures that indicate past or present life, and to core and cache rock sample for future delivery back to Earth.

As of now NASA is working with over fifty institutions world-wide, planning and implementing the technology needed for our next visit to Mars. Present, NASA has only defined the suite of instruments and objectives for the 2020 Rover. Within the next year (by May 2015) they hope to have the regulations and technicalities hammered out.

Even though the 2020 Rover will be about the same size as Curiosity, scientists are excited about its souped-up technologies. The landing mass of the rover will be less than one metric ton with about 40 kilograms of scientific instruments (as compared to Curiosity’s 74 kilograms worth of gadgets).

NASA headquarters have announced that the landing mechanism will be the same in 2020 as it was for Curiosity. A Sky Crane will be used for safe landing.

Here now are a list of the instruments and how each is will aid in achieving the stated goals set forth by NASA:

MASTCAM-Z will have the most advanced zooming capabilities yet on Mars. It will contain twelve filters that will be able to use binocular vision giving it the ability for multispectral imaging. It will be equipped for rapid terrain modeling, allowing the rover to choose a safe landing spot from further distances than Curiosity could. It will also allow for more precise panoramic and close up photography, making the task easier for selecting a region for detailed study.

SuperCam has been designed to be the next step in laser induced mass spectroscopy. It will be able to identify elements and minerals within rocks with a simple shot of a laser (532 nm wavelength). It will be this device that will allow remote sensing and will hopefully be able to detect organic materials in the search for life on Mars.

MOXIE (The Mars Oxygen ISRU Experiment) is perhaps the most exciting instrument to be included. It is the first step in taking the carbon dioxide abundant in Mars’ atmosphere, breaking it apart, and creating pure oxygen. This is an absolutely necessary technology to master if we ever hope to get humans on Mars. The oxygen could be used to create an artificial atmosphere capable for extended human habitation, as well as to make rocket fuel for voyages between planets.

MEDA (Mars Environmental Dynamics Analyzer) will provide a detailed description of Mars’ weather. It will be able to measure temperature, humidity and wind speed, atmospheric pressure, and dust analysis. It will be designed to help MOXIE.

RIMFAX (The Radar Imager for Mars’ Subsurface Exploration) will provide ground-penetrating radar down to half a kilometer beneath the surface. This will allow for detailed imaging of geological features that scientists may or may not wish to dig down to examine, it will also be useful for identifying underground water sources (if there are any).

PIXL (Planetary Instrument for X-ray Lithochemistry) is one of two arm-mounted instruments designed to provide fine scaled mineralogical study. It will be used in the search for microbial life. Using X-rays it will be able to deliver the most detailed chemical analysis of Martian rocks to date.

SherLOC (Scanning Habitable Environments with Raman & Luminescence for Organics and Chemicals) is the second of the two arm-mounted devices. Like its counterpart its job is to detect mineral composition. It will use ultra violet lasers to probe rocks for organic life.

Michael Meyer stated in the press conference that each of the instruments involved have been wisely selected to work with each other. Each will offer advancements on technologies already implanted on Curiosity, or they are new tools never yet used on Mars.

The 2020 Rover is the next big leap in understanding Mars. It aims at increasing our knowledge of the two most fundamental human questions; can humans leave Earth and live on another planet, and are we the only form of life within the universe? Great discoveries are sure to come!


Origins of Mars’ Mysterious Gullies Solved

These two images, taken four years apart, show the martian gully evolving over time. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

These two images, taken four years apart, show the martian gully evolving over time. (Credit: NASA/JPL/Malin Space Science Systems)

It was nearly 15 years ago when scientists first spotted gullies on Mars. Since then they’ve had the opportunity to make continual observations of these structures using the Mars Reconnaissance orbiter’s high tech equipment. The initial findings led to many questions; primarily, could these gullies be formed by flows of liquid water?

If that were the case, the implications would be truly sensational. Thus far, we have only detected frozen waterwater vapor and a few characteristics that indicate Mars was once a wet world. Discovering liquid water could be game changer for many reasons, but above all, it would put Mars as the solid front runner in the search for  life in the solar system. Needless to say,  a lot of people have their fingers crossed.


To figure out whether or not it was water sculpting the gullies, scientists turned to MRO once again. On board the spacecraft resides the High Resolution Imaging Science Experiment camera, otherwise known as HiRISE. The camera has played an important role in distinguishing significant features of Mars’ terrain in resoundingly high definition.

Serina Diniega of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says, “This [technology] allows us to make repeated observation[s] and to examine surface changes over time”. She goes on to include, “Much of the information we have about gully formation, and other active processes, come from the longevity of MRO and other orbiters”(NASA).

Since arriving on the red planet, HiRISE has focused its attention on 356 sites that contain gullies, which on Earth, are trenches carved by the movement of water down a slope. Astoundingly, thirty-eight of the sites indicate change over time. This was a surprising discovery, given that earlier theories had proposed that the odd streaks on Mars’ surface formed thousands of years ago while it was still a vibrant world. In actuality, they observed the gullies transforming, sometimes dramatically, before their eyes. Some showed evidence of additional debris build up at the base of the trenches, others spawned new branches. It was now clear that gullies are still quite active on Mars.

Side-by-side comparisons of photos taken of the same location helped researchers verify when the gully seemed to be flowing most prominently. As it turned out, the activity “coincided with seasonal carbon dioxide frost and temperatures that would not have allowed for liquid water” stated NASA’s press release (announced on July 10th, 2014).

This set of images was taken by HiRISE in 2010 and 2013. A new channel is shown forming on the martian slope. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)

This set of images was taken by HiRISE in 2010 and 2013. A new channel is shown forming on the martian slope. Click to enlarge. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Univ. of Arizona)


So, if it isn’t liquid water, what’s creating martian trenches? The next obvious contender is frozen carbon dioxide, otherwise knows as dry ice (it comprises approximately 95% of Mars’ atmosphere). We know that carbon dioxide (Co2) freezes at -78.5 ºC (-109.3 ºF) at sea level (one atmospheric pressure); therefore, dry ice is not found naturally on Earth, our surface temperature and atmospheric pressure just aren’t conducive to the freezing of Co2. Conversely, on Mars, the temperatures can drop down to -153 °C (-225 ºF) at the poles during winter. In comparison, during the summer, temperatures at the equator can warm up to 20 °C (70 °F).

Scientists now believe the trenches have been carved into Mars’ surface by seasonal dry ice formations. The sublimation, or phase transfer, of carbon dioxide gas into a solid could create enough lubrication to help move along the flow of the frozen material. As the atmosphere freezes more gas, its mass becomes greater, thus gravity might also aid downward flow.

While this research — recently published online in the journal ICARUS — suggests that liquid water isn’t the catalyst, dry ice is still a pretty exciting consolation. Lead author Colin Dundas (from the U.S. Geological Survey’s Astrogeology Science Center) remains optimistic, saying, “I like that Mars can still surprise us…Martian gullies are fascinating features that allow us to investigate a process we just don’t see on Earth”.


This article was originally published by FQTQ, July 15, 2014. 

NASA Plans to Capture Asteroid In Moon’s Orbit

Photo credit: NASA/AMA

Photo credit: NASA/AMA

As part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission (ARM), NASA and cooperative scientists have been searching for a suitable asteroid to capture and redirect into the moon’s orbit for continual research. The ARM spacecraft is proposed to launch in 2019. Once set in orbit, the hands-on examination of the asteroid will begin in the 2020s. The mission has two main focuses: to develop the expertise needed for deep space travel to Mars and beyond, as well as providing an opportunity to test technologies that will keep Earth safe from any possible future asteroid impacts.

There are two concepts set for NASA’s ARM operation: “The first is to fully capture a very small asteroid in open space, and the second is to collect a boulder-sized sample off of a much larger asteroid. Both concepts would require redirecting an asteroid less than 32 feet (10 meters) in size into the moon’s orbit. The agency will choose between these two concepts in late 2014 and further refine the mission’s design.”

Recently a $4.9 million award has been offered for concept studies that will lead to the ARM’s success. Starting in July, a six-month research period will begin that addresses the issues of the mission. During this time the technologies, mechanics and resources needed for the mission will be perfected.

As of now, only nine asteroids have been identified that meet the criteria for possible mission nominees. Using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope, the most recent asteroid candidate has been identified. The telescope’s “warm” mission began in 2009 once its coolant ran out as planned, and since then Spitzer has been used for more long term and targeted observations. In particular this makes asteroid observation easier as infrared detection is the best way to study less luminous objects.

The recognition of the latest contending asteroid, named 2011 MD, for possible capture as part of the Asteroid Redirect Mission, was published June 19th, 2014 in the Astrophysical Journal Letters. Lead author of the study, Michael Mommert of Northern Arizona University says, “From its perch up in space, Spitzer can use its heat-sensitive infrared vision to spy asteroids and get better estimates of their sizes.” To be deemed valid, the asteroid must be both the right size and mass, but also the rotation rate must be considered to make its capture feasible.

2011 MD is one of the lucky asteroids that has met all necessary criteria for redirection. It has a diameter of about three to six meters (10-20 feet) with a density similar to water, this suggests that the asteroid is mostly empty space, as solid rock is usually at least three times denser than water. 2011 MD may either be a singular solid rock with a halo of particles surrounding it or a collection of smaller space rocks held in tandem by gravity. Only further observation will conclude indefinitely what its composition is.

The idea of capturing an asteroid and setting it in orbit around the moon is truly exciting! It will be the first time that humans have achieved such a massive cosmic endeavor. Building a stellar environment that fits our research needs almost seems more science fiction that reality; however, if we wish to take humans into deep space it is a necessary leap to make. Not only is the Asteroid Redirect Mission awesome in its concept, it will prove to be incredibly valuable in a scientific standpoint as well. John Grunsfeld, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate, says, “Observing these elusive remnants that may date from the formation of our solar system as they come close to Earth, is expanding our understanding of our world and the space it resides in.”


NASA, Spitzer Spies an Odd, Tiny Asteroid

NASA, NASA Announces Latest Progress, Upcoming Milestones in Hunt for Asteroids

This article was originally written for and published by From Quarks to Quasars.

Giving Birth to the Serpent’s Stars

Serpens Nebula in infrared. Some of the youngest stars in the Milky Way are seen in yellow and red, in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS

Serpens Nebula in infrared. Some of the youngest stars in the Milky Way are seen in yellow and red, in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/2MASS

Revealed in this recent image taken by NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope and the Two Micron All Sky Survey (2MASS) is the star-forming region called the Serpens Cloud Core. The cluster shown contains stars that are among the youngest found in our galaxy! Using infrared technology the telescopes captured details from within the stellar breeding ground that were previously unavailable.

By assigning visible colors to the infrared light within the structure, astronomers are able to peer through the fog of gas and dust to observe emerging stars taking shape. “They appear as red, orange and yellow points clustered near the center of the image. Other red features include jets of material ejected from these young stars” (NASA). The nebula’s central cloud, which is chock-full of star birthing ingredients, is colored blue.

Located 750 light-years away in the Serpens (Serpent’s) constellation, this region of space is lacking the existence of super luminous stars. “The core contains a dense, very young, low mass stellar cluster with more than 300 objects in all evolutionary phases, from collapsing gaseous condensations to pre-main sequence stars” (The Serpens Molecular Cloud). Stars, located in the foreground and background of the Serpent, provide most of the pinpricks of light seen in the picture. The formation itself consists of low to moderately sized stars, which appear dimmer in the night sky.

It took an over 16 hours of observation and a compilation of 82 individual photographs to construct the image above. Although the use of light filters makes it possible to examine portions of space that would normally be invisible to us, there is still a region within the Serpens Cloud Core, located to the left, which is too thick for even the infrared filter to penetrate.

By continuing to study such stellar nurseries in detail, scientists can begin to unravel the mystery of how stars with varying masses form within nebulae. It also allows us to understand in, further detail, how chemical composition contributes to the fusion process of star’s lifetime. The evolutionary actions that occur with nebulae contain a wealth of information that can then be applied to future examinations of the cosmos.


Written for From Quarks to Quasars, June 12, 2014. For more science news articles check them out!

NASA’s New Technology Captures First High Resolution Images of Coronal Mass Ejection

NASA’s Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS) has taken its first images of a huge coronal mass ejection (CME). The spacecraft was launched with the hopes of studying the Sun in exquisite detail. The new technology, which was launched a year ago in June 2013, has the ability to gaze deeper into the atmosphere of the Sun, then ever before.

In images captured on May 9th 2014, scientists were able view a CME that blasted out of a Sun at 1.5 million miles per hour. NASA has compiled a video of the amazing footage. “The field of view [seen in this video] is about five Earths wide and about seven-and-a-half Earths tall” (NASA).

The original version of the video can be found here and is courtesy of NASA.

Though they are similar, coronal mass ejections occur in different atmospheric altitudes than solar flares. They are the result of magnetic fields being violently twisted within the Sun’s outermost atmosphere, the corona. During such ejections an immense amount of plasma, upwards of a billion tons, can be thrown out into the solar system.

It is interesting to note that it may take one to four days before the CME reaches us, and extremely energized particles being pushed by the shock front can reach Earth within an hour. As Earth’s magnetic field attempts to shield us from the harmful radiation, the opportunity to view aurorae arises.

The exact mechanisms of CMEs are not yet known, and since these surges are responsible for a great deal of our solar system’s weather, it is an important piece of information to pin down.

The Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph is a Small Explorer Mission launched by NASA to improve our knowledge of solar material. It has the ability to measure in high-resolution, the temperature, velocity, and energy of substances moving through the inner layers of the Sun’s atmosphere.

A number of NASA affiliates work with the Lockheed Martin Solar & Astrophysics Laboratory on IRIS technology. They are committed to continually pushing the boundary of what we know about the Sun and its ferocious outbursts.


Additional sources:

Windows To The UniverseCoronal Mass Ejections.

Encyclopaedia Britannica

NASAIRIS Mission Overview

This article was originally published for From Quarks to Quasars. I highly recommend you check out their website if you not yet familiar with them!